9-20-17 - Not the Boss

As we move through this Sunday's parable, let’s hear how the vineyard manager might tell the story:

Let’s get this straight right off: It was not my decision to pay everyone the same. That was the way the boss wanted it, and I follow orders. To tell you the truth, I felt a little funny about it. I watched how hard those guys that got hired at dawn worked. The ones who came later worked hard too, but there’s a big difference between working for twelve hours and one.

When the boss told me to give out the full daily wage for everybody, I was surprised. I thought maybe he’d add some kind of a bonus for the ones who picked all day. But no. It was like his generosity only went toward the ones who got hired late. More for them than expected; the amount agreed-upon for everyone else. He even paid them first. Fair…and not quite fair. Depends on how you look at it. Depends on who you’re looking at.

I don’t blame the all-day folks for being mad. But here’s what they don’t know: they were already at the top of the pay scale. That daily wage was way above the norm. The boss was paying out everything he was making off that vineyard. The only way to pay those workers more was to pay others less.. and that’s not how he rolls. Not how he thinks. He’s quirky, the boss… hard to understand at times. But I’ll tell you this: he knows what he’s doing. 

Who might the manager in Jesus’ story represent? I think he stands for all who consider ourselves servants of God, who participate in what God is doing, carry out God’s mercy and God’s justice, speak God’s peace, who forgive and heal and love and tend. God’s ways don’t always make sense to us – we take a big leap of faith whenever we walk into the works God has prepared for us.

It can be hard to be God’s rep in the face of grief or crisis, to sit with someone in who feels God is not blessing her as God blesses others. It is a challenge to proclaim God’s love to someone who insists they have never known it, cannot feel it. I often have to resist the impulse to defend God when someone is disappointed or accusing, when something in the Bible or the church causes offense. Then I remember, God doesn’t need me to defend him. God only needs me to be true to what I believe God is telling or showing or leading.

And God needs us to be true to ourselves. We don’t leave ourselves at the door when we work for God - the Spirit of God works with and through us, through our intellect, emotions, history, moods, our circumstances on any given day. God doesn’t want robots – God seems to want us.

Are you willing to be God’s “ managing agent” today? What vineyard have you been called to tend? Are there difficult “orders” to carry out? We don’t have to worry about doing it ourselves. We can simply pray, “Lord, if you want me to do this thing, or have that conversation, please work in me and through me.” And then pay attention to what happens.

I stand on the reminder I once got, that God already loves me the most. There is nothing I can do or have to do to make God love me more, because God is already as delighted in me as can be. I could quit accomplishing and producing right now, and my God-salary would not decrease. I’m already at the top of a really generous pay scale. And so are you.

9-19-17 - I Was Robbed

One way to “hear” parables afresh is to look at them from different angles. Today, let’s see what one of those “all day” workers might have to say:

You think I’m wrong to be resentful? I was up and at the marketplace by 5 o’clock this morning, ready to work. This guy hired me and a bunch of others, told us we’d receive a good day’s pay. It was good pay, better than some. I didn’t mind working all day, knowing I was going to get paid well. I'm a good worker.

Every few hours, a few more joined us – Good, I thought, There’s plenty of work. I was a little surprised when a few more came in at nearly quitting time. Oh well, they’ll get paid for an hour. Enough for a beer. Why not? Even with the extra hands, though, it was a long day, and the sun was hot.

When the foreman finally called time, I was ready. But the boss said those who worked fewer hours should get in front of the line; us all-day guys to the back. Okay, I thought, maybe he doesn’t want them to know our wage. Then I saw they were getting the full day’s pay, even the one-hour folks. Wow, this guy is generous! I couldn’t wait to see what kind of bonus I was going to get.

But I finally got up to the front of the line, and got my pay… and it was exactly the same as everybody else. Exactly the same as we’d been promised at the start. Seemed okay at 5 o’clock this morning, but now, with the sun going down, knowing what everybody else got, I feel stiffed. You bet I do. I worked like a dog today, never looked up, never sat down. Why did I bother, if others get more for less?

A few of us spoke up, but the boss, he just said, “Can’t I do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’”

I don’t want his stinking generosity – I want things fair. You work, you get paid. You work longer, you get paid more. Tell you this much, this is the last time I agree to a daily wage. You can just pay me hourly from now on. Then I'm in control.

This guy represents the religious rulers that Jesus was always tussling with, the ones who thought God’s rewards were only for those who kept the law like they did. They show up in a lot of Jesus’ parables – the older brother in the Prodigal Son story is another example. They want to control the terms. And Jesus keeps saying, “No, God controls the terms. And God can welcome whomever God wants.”

Do you know anyone like this? Have you ever been someone like this, resentful when someone else gets rewarded? How are you at asking for help? Do you prefer to give gifts, or receive them? These are some of the ways we know how open we are to the generosity of God.

A prayer for today: Lord, open my spirit to receive your gifts. Open my heart to rejoice in the blessings given to the people around me, whether or not they’ve earned them. Open my eyes to see who wants to give me time or help today. Open my ears to those who want to share themselves with me. Open my hands to give and receive, in love and humility and gratitude. Amen.

There’s a lot to be said for getting paid hourly… but what Jesus offers is daily bread. Enough for the day. Take it.

9-18-17 - No Fair!

Now we come to one of my favorite parables – the workers in the vineyard. No blood or violence in this one, just grace beyond measure. And boy, does that make some people mad!

You can read the whole story for yourself – Here’s the “nutshell” version. A landowner hires day laborers for his vineyard, agreeing to a standard wage. They’re happy, he’s happy. As the day progresses, he goes back out to the marketplace at intervals and hires more workers, even at 5 in the afternoon, when the workday is nearly done. At quitting time, he instructs his manager to pay everyone a full day’s wage. Everyone gets the same – what could be more fair than that? But the ones who worked the whole day feel they should get more than those who worked less time.

"And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’"

Now, maybe their workload grew lighter as more workers were added to the vineyard… but even so, they have a point, don’t they? We almost always have a legitimate grievance when we compare ourselves to other people. When we stand before God’s grace alone, though, we're more apt to be in awe of the abundance of mercy extended to us.

Like many of Jesus’ parables, this one is aimed at those who believe they are “in” in God’s realm by virtue of their hard work and righteousness. If we all get the same reward no matter how hard we work, what’s the point of working hard? Precisely! The Kingdom of Heaven is not for strivers – it is for what we become when we’ve finally reached the end of our striving and give up. Give in.

The currency of the Kingdom of Heaven is grace, unmerited love and forgiveness in abundance. Grace goes beyond contract. By its very nature, it is “unfair.” We cannot earn it. It is totally up to God to give, to whomever God wants, no matter how much or how little we try to please God.

How does that sit with you? On our best days, we say, “Whew!” because we know we get a pass. On our worse days, we say, “Hey! How come that one got a break?” Are you having a “thank God for grace” day or a “I want them to get what’s comin’ to them” day? If you’re in the former position, amen! You are in in the Life of God. Spend some time in prayer today giving thanks for all the ways you see and pass on God's grace.

If the idea of mercy for another – even a heinous monster – is troubling you, that’s fine too. We feel what we feel. With those feelings we can pray for those undeserving people. Pray that they might come within reach of God’s true blessing. That’s the only force I know of that can transform the blackest heart. It's happened before...

A few years ago, I-Tunes users received a free gift of the new U2 album, whether or not they wanted it. Many in fact resented it. But In honor of that gift, let’s end with an old song of theirs, “Grace,” especially these lyrics:

What once was hurt / What once was friction / What left a mark / No longer stings /
Because Grace makes beauty out of ugly things

Litany of Forgiveness

Litany of Forgiveness 
Compiled by Kate Heichler

“Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.” (Luke 6:37-38)

Lord, release in us forgiveness for our enemies in the world. 
“But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” (Luke 6:27-28)

For those who hate us for who we are – and those whom we disdain;
for those who use violence to gain their ends – and for the times we do the same;
for those who seek vengeance, not peace – and for us, when we do the same;
Help us to forgive those enemies we name before you now, especially…
Forgive us, Lord, and help us to forgive.

Lord, please release in us forgiveness for ourselves. 
“Jesus said, ‘But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.’ Then he said to the woman, ‘Your sins are forgiven.’” (Luke 7:47b-48)

For the ways we have disappointed ourselves;
for the things we have said that we cannot un-say;
for the things we have done that we cannot undo;
for the opportunities we have let go by;
for the hurts we have inflicted on those whom we love:
Help us to forgive ourselves for those things we name before you now, especially…
Forgive us, Lord, and help us to forgive.

Lord, please release in us forgiveness for people who have hurt us. 
“Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses.” (Mark 11:25)

For grudges we have held and bitterness we have fed;
for the people who have hurt us by what they’ve said to us or about us;
for the people who have hurt us by not valuing us;
for those who have taken from us and not given back;
for those who have abused our trust – and even those who have abused us
Help us to forgive those people we name before you now, especially…
Forgive us, Lord, and help us to forgive.

“All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.” (II Cor 5:18-19)


© Katherine Anne Heichler, 2008; use by permission only

9-15-17 - Forgiveness for Freedom

Lest we think this story Jesus told was hopelessly out of date, we should remember that we still have debtors’ prisons in this country. The Southern Poverty Law Center got one in Alabama closed down a few years ago. Threatening punishment for those who cannot pay is an old strategy. Jesus even seems to employ it in the end to his parable:  “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” 

Forgive, or else, is that Jesus’ message? I hope this is another of his hyperbolic turns, where he drives home a point by exaggerating it. However, whether motivated by fear or love, the call to Christ followers to excel at forgiving others is clear. In fact, it is necessary if that living water of God’s transforming power and love are going to flow through us unimpeded. Unforgiveness creates blockages, debris that can – like plaque in our blood vessels – create clots. This is why forgiveness and healing are so intertwined.

I was privileged to know Canon Jim Glennon, an Anglican clergyman from Australia who had an extraordinary gift and ministry of healing. His notion of God’s healing was simple: It is God’s desire that we be whole, so we pray, planting the seed of faith in Christ; give thanks for God’s activity, even before you see it, and don’t be afraid to test it. Jim and I corresponded quite a bit before he died, and he came to New York to lead a healing mission I organized at my church.

He did some teaching and then, to demonstrate, he asked if someone with severe back pain would come up for prayer. A man did. He’d been injured at his workplace 15 years earlier, and his pain was incessant. Jim prayed for him awhile, and then stopped and asked what the man was feeling or sensing. The man said, “It’s weird – ever since you began praying, I’ve had my old boss’s face in my mind.” This boss had denied him worker’s comp benefits he should have received, and the man bitterly resented him. Jim said, “Are you willing to forgive him?” He didn’t push, just invited. The man said, “Yes, I am,” and then began to sob and sob. After some more prayer, Jim asked him how his pain was now, and he said, “It’s gone! It’s been with me for 15 years, and it’s gone!”

If you have a sense of blessings blocked, either coming to you, or from you to others, ask God to show you if you’re holding onto anger or resentment toward someone. And release that debt as well as you’re able, asking the Spirit to do for you what you’re unable to do for yourself. And then test out your freedom, the way Jim asked the man to test his absence of pain by twisting around and moving. Pray for the person who hurt you. Go out and give to someone else. See what has changed. (If you’d like to pray a Litany of Forgiveness I developed, you can find it here.)

“It is for freedom that Christ has set us free,” Paul wrote. (Galatians 5:1). Let’s spread it around.

9-14-17 - Communities of Forgiveness

This week’s Jesus story still isn’t over – there is another turn to it. (You know, Jesus’ story is never really over!) The injustice wrought by the newly forgiven slave is not the last word. After he refuses to release his fellow-slave from his debt, the other servants turn the mean guy in:

“When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt.”

Okay, I’m pretty sure God is not in the torture business – though we do endure a kind of spiritual pain when we withhold forgiveness. (Is that what hell is?) But here Jesus explicitly links forgiveness in and forgiveness out, as he does in other teachings on prayer. We can’t get away from it. We can’t fully experience God’s love if we can’t forgive ourselves and others.

What I like in this story is the way the community watches the situation, and calls out the injustice. Having witnessed the great mercy shown this slave, they were not about to let him get away with holding someone else to harsh terms.

Injustice can be perpetrated and perpetuated in communities, and misdeeds swept under the carpet. But in healthy communities, a light is always on and members are accountable to each other. When someone acts in a destructive or prideful way, a healthy community has people of integrity who can remind her of the mercy she has received, and invite her to align her values with those of the community. In Christian communities, that means the values Jesus taught and lived.

Think of how our police departments and military units and financial institutions might function if they were communities of accountability and justice. Many recent news stories would have been non-events.

Have you ever been called on your behavior or treatment of another? Was the message delivered in a way that you could receive it? How did you respond?

Have you ever addressed someone about the way they were acting or speaking? Perhaps a notorious gossip or someone who routinely sows discord? Those are hard conversations to have. But when we put the health of the community and of each person in it – including the one who’s being destructive – above our social discomfort, we can move forward. And if we pray it through beforehand, and during, those conversations often go much better than we anticipate.

If someone you know is damaging the community, you may need to deal with it. Pray for that person for a time before having the conversation – it gives us more peace and gives the Spirit a chance to prepare the ground. And if, as you speak, you can cite times you have been less than wonderful, and speak with humility, it might keep the walls from going up. And if you’re able to pray with the person you’re having the conversation with, so much the better.

God set us into communities, starting with families, classrooms, workplaces, memberships. Community can be one of the hardest aspects of human life, and one of the richest. This story Jesus tells invites us to be active in keeping our communities as healthy and life-giving as we can. That includes speaking the truth in love.

9-13-17 - Mercy Strained

What a heart-warming story we hear in Jesus’ parable about debt forgiveness. The king had pity on his poor slave and forgave his debt, all 10,000 talents of it. In fact, Jesus says, “he released him and forgave him the debt,” suggesting perhaps he was even set free from his servitude. It must have been a good day for that debtor. We'd like to think he continued the chain of mercy. Ah, but the story was not finished. Plot twist – the debtor was also a creditor:

“But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt.”

So the one who, in effect, just gained 10,000 talents he no longer has to repay, refuses to even extend the collection period on a mere 100-denarii loan. Liberals like me tend to think, “Oh, if everyone just received merciful treatment, they’d treat others that way.” This parable suggests it’s not automatic. I’ve preached to guys on the street who I’m pretty sure have called for major forgiveness in life – and some of them did not approve of the parable of the prodigal son. They prefer justice to mercy, hard as it is.

In this story Jesus suggests that, when we refuse to forgive our fellow human beings for the offenses they have committed, we are being exactly like that wicked slave – because the forgiveness we have received from God is so much greater than anything asked of us. Do you buy that? We need to accept at least two conditions for it to make sense:
  1. That we are sinners in need for forgiveness by God, and have received God’s grace.
  2. That, no matter how serious another’s offense against us is, it pales in comparison to humankind’s offenses against our Creator.
At the time we are wounded or insulted in some way, it’s hard to see anything but our pain and righteous anger. We’ll talk about it to anyone who will listen – often to anyone except the perpetrator. The idea that in God’s Big Picture our betrayals and shortcomings may be just as serious, or more, seems inconceivable in that moment. We lose perspective.

I will not try to persuade you which forgiveness is bigger. I’ll just invite us to put ourselves in the shoes of the first debtor, the one whose huge debt is removed, who has been set free. I believe that the more fully we integrate that spiritual gift, the better able we are to keep perspective when we are sinned against. When we really “get” how blissfully off the hook we are, we might just be more inclined to want other people to enjoy that feeling, even those who’ve hurt us most. Especially them.

Yesterday, I suggested some confession. Today, let’s think about people we still need to forgive for hurting us, letting us down, lying about us. Bear in mind the person you’re keeping on the hook might be yourself. It might be God. What would it feel like to release that person?

It can take a lifetime to accept God’s forgiveness and freedom, to live into the change in status conferred upon us in Christ: no longer a slave, no longer a debtor; now a daughter, a son, free. But what a life we can have if we accept that gift right now.

9-12-17 - Mercy Unlimited

Jesus said there is no limit to the number of times we must be prepared to forgive someone. Then, to illustrate the point, he told one of his trademark stories. This is a longer parable, with multiple characters and scenes. As is often the case in how Matthew relates Jesus’ stories, this one has a violent cast to it. The story in a nutshell goes like this:

A king is settling his accounts with his slaves. Apparently this king not only owns slaves, but is like their loan-shark. The terms of non-payment are pretty severe – you’re sold off, along with your wife and children, and have to sell all your belongings, with the proceeds going to service your debt. Nice. One guy owes ten thousand talents. He begs the king to forgive his debt – and he does. Wow! That was unexpected, right? What he does in response to having his massive debt forgiven we’ll talk about tomorrow. Today, let’s focus on this ruthless king who is capable of such mercy.

Jesus starts the story by saying, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves.” Is he saying that GOD is like such a king? Not necessarily – he says the realm of God may be so compared. At the very least, we surmise that in the economy of God’s realm, the servants owe the king quite a bit, and that settling these accounts is a normative occurrence.

Do we owe debts to God? Some theologians, like Anselm of Canterbury, argued that every sin we commit is akin to stealing from God. If God is perfect and has given us perfect life in his image, then every blemish on that perfection is an offense against the creator, an offense for which we must make restitution. That’s one way to look at it.

Or we might try the language of stewardship, which asserts that everything we have in this world, including our life, our gifts and resources, our relationships, our abilities, is on loan from our heavenly father, for us to use and enjoy and to nurture into growth. In this sense, every time we claim something as ours, whether money or credit for things we’ve done, we are grabbing at what was freely offered us to use. There is no “mine” in this view – we are always to be ready to account for our use of God’s gifts.

That's a way of seeing the process of repentance and confession – a daily settling of our accounts with God. Do you make a regular practice of confession? We do it in church, with or without much thought. Some people do it in their own prayer times. Others visit a confessor for the sacrament of reconciliation. To be honest before another person and hear the words of God’s forgiveness is a powerful grace.

We can do an inventory, thinking through our relationships, our work and activities, our use of our gifts. Incidents of self-centeredness or wounding of self or others might come to mind as we do this, and we can offer them to Jesus for forgiveness. Or read through a Prayer Book litany like the one for Ash Wednesday – that’ll stir up some penitence.

When we find we’ve taken more out of the kitty than we can replace, when we have committed too serious an offense to repay – which might be all of them – we fall on God’s great mercy. If it’s anything like the king’s in this story, though the consequences could be extremely dire, we get to walk away with our books balanced, nothing hanging over our heads. That what “whose service is perfect freedom” means.

9-11-17 - Forgiveness Without End

In last week’s gospel passage, we explored what happens when one member of the community is wounded by another. Jesus laid out a process of confrontation leading to resolution, either reconciliation or separation. Peter must have been thinking ahead, for he realized it wasn’t enough to be able to address conflict… if what Jesus had been saying all along meant anything, reconciliation would have to include forgiveness. How far was that supposed to go?

Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.” (Here is this week's gospel passage.)

Sometimes it’s translated “seventy times seven.” I once wrote a short story called “The 489th Wrong,” about a religious woman who finally reaches that number of times she feels she’s forgiven her husband, and thinks she can stop (wrong!). But it’s not about the math. Seven is one of those infinite numbers, so Jesus is basically saying, “As many times as needed.” There is no end to the number of times Christ-followers are called to forgive.

The deeper the wound, the more forgiveness costs us. I see forgiveness as “giving for.” Someone has taken something from you; they owe it, and you pay yourself for them – in effect, you lose twice. Why do that? Because it cancels the debt, clears the field, resets the clock, frees you and the other person. That’s one reason.

The other, as we’ll see from the parable Jesus uses to illustrate his point, is that while we’re busy trying to decide whether or not to forgive someone, somebody else may be wrestling with forgiving us. And even if we’ve offended no one on earth, chances are we’ve done, said or thought something that makes us less than who God intended us to be, and therefore we need God’s forgiveness. When we think about how many times we ask God to forgive us, often for the same darn thing, we’re more inclined to cut each other some slack, as the great hymn “Forgive our sins” reminds us.

Is there someone whom you have been unable to forgive?
A resentment that sits there within you? Chances are that wound remains unhealed, and gets reopened periodically, either by that person or by similar feelings.
What feelings come up when you think about forgiving that person, releasing that debt?

If you don’t yet feel ready to forgive, might you be willing to let God do it? That’s one way to pray toward forgiveness, by praying, “Lord, I can’t forgive this person… but if you want to, I guess it’s okay.” Just praying that will shift the landscape a bit, generate some space, and the Holy Spirit will work with whatever space we give. If you're willing to go a little further, pray, "And if you want me to, please give me a desire to forgive..." That's another opening.

Our “forgiveness muscles” need to be exercised just like everything else in us. On this anniversary of one of the worst wounds inflicted upon our nation in recent times, we have yet another opportunity to flex those muscles. No one is beyond the reach of God's forgiveness, and as we grow in faith, we are able, by his power, to forgive even terrorists. 

9-8-17 - Jesus Here Now

Sometimes I wish Jesus would show up and set a few things straight in this messed up world of ours – if people would pay more attention than they did the first time around. But that idle wish misses a big ol’ point: He is here. He said he would be. It’s up to us to discern him and to make him known.

“For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them,” is a promise. A promise of presence. To unfold that promise, though, requires a few actions from us.

First, we have to be able to distinguish between flesh and spirit. Jesus said that fleshly reality was limited, and that spiritual reality was never-ending. Jesus’ enfleshed presence was time-and-space-limited, 33 years or so, give or take, in one region of the world. His presence in a resurrection body lasted about 40 days. His spiritual presence is eternal, and still going strong among those who believe in his promise.

The other article of faith we need to affirm is the idea of Jesus living in us. I take the promises of baptism at face value - the promise is that we are united with Christ, made a new creation, given a new heart and a new spirit – his spirit. So Paul wrote, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” This filling with his spirit is not an “invasion of the body snatchers” thing. Rather, his spirit joined with mine brings forth a new person, that most true “Kate” (fill in your name) that can possibly be.

If Christ dwells in us, abides in us, then he is real in us. And when we gather with others in whom Christ lives, his presence becomes even stronger and more real. By believing and joining together, we make Christ present in our world, not just a suggestion of presence, but fully here, spiritually speaking. (We supply the flesh and blood.)

How might it change our lives and ministries if we brought this reality more fully to our consciousness? If, when we gathered together, we knew Jesus was among us, and we spoke and acted and prayed like we knew we were in the presence of the all-powerful God? If, when we went out in ministry, we made sure we went in teams of at least two, so that the power of Christ’s presence would fill and empower our work in his name? Don’t get me wrong – Christ is present in us when we’re alone. But he said when two or three of us – our more – gathered in his name, he would be in our midst.

Where do you think it would be great if Jesus showed up this weekend? What place, person, situation? Do you have any idea how you might bring him there, with a few others?

Going deeper… where do you think he might want to go? You might get quiet in prayer and ask him: “Jesus, where do you want me to take you today, to make you known?”

I can’t wait to hear how those prayers turn out. I do know the world needs a lot more Jesus, and we’re just the ones to help make that happen.

9-7-17 - Pre-Blessed Prayers

Some promises are dangerous, offering more than can seemingly be delivered. This statement of Jesus’ strikes me that way: “Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven.” Anything? If even just two of us agree?

Is this a promise with a back-door clause – is it so unlikely that two people on earth would ever fully agree about any request, God has an automatic out? No, let’s assume Jesus was being straightforward. That might leave us doubting God, knowing that we have prayed for outcomes with many people in whole-hearted agreement as to their desirability, without seeing them come to pass. Exhibit A are prayers for healing that are not visibly answered.

This is one of those bible verses that cannot be separated from the one that follows. It only accords with both faith and experience when seen in tandem with this: “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” (This Sunday's gospel is here.)

Ah, now we’re not only talking about human agreement. We’re talking about being gathered as the Body of Christ, in his very presence. To pray in Jesus’ name is to pray as Christ; to pray from inside, as it were; to invoke the power that his very name makes known. To pray in Jesus’ name is to pray in agreement with him, and thus to pray with perfect faith. Our own is far from perfect, but Jesus’ is 100%. When we pray with Jesus, not only to Jesus, we have all the faith we need.

So why are some of our prayers not answered as we desire? Perhaps we weren’t quite praying in Christ. Maybe we were bringing forward our desires and seeking God's blessing upon them, like a pie at the county fair. “Here, isn’t this one pretty?” Sometimes that yields answers we recognize. But our prayers feel more effective when we pray what Jesus is already praying for; his prayers come pre-blessed.

What are some of those “unanswered prayers” in your life? I think most of us have some, and they often put distance between us and God. Call one to mind today.
Have you ever asked God what God thinks about that prayer? Ever discussed it with Jesus? Ever paid attention to the Spirit in you when you pray about that?

We might even try asking God: "What is your desire for me in this area?" We might be surprised at how God answers us. We might have to stay still for a time, and attend to what words or images or songs arise in us, now or later.

Prayer isn’t about getting what we want; it’s about deepening a relationship, one that will last forever. We need to speak our desires - that's just good communicating, being real. But the more we cultivate intimacy with Jesus, the more we’ll find ourselves truly praying in his name, his will, his mind, his heart.

And sometimes, as Garth Brooks reminds us, there are reasons we only discover later for what feel like Unanswered Prayers.

9-6-17 - Free To Set Free

Do we want this much power? Several times Jesus sets the authority to offer or withhold forgiveness into a cosmic framework, saying that what we do in this world is mirrored in the heavenly realm. 
“Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Yikes.

Maybe Jesus teaches this process of confrontation and reconciliation because there are such cosmic consequences to ignoring conflict and pain. When we bury our hurts, sweep our conflicts under the rug, not only do we stay bound, we keep the perpetrators of hurts bound to us. No one is free.

I believe that what God wants most for us is freedom. I have seen the process of healing and forgiving result in amazing freedom for people, huge releasing of energy and giftedness, new ability to see, to hope, to live. As I reflect on this, I keep thinking of stories of survivors of sexual abuse and trauma. (The next two paragraphs contain nothing explicit, but if this is a sensitive area for you, read with care.)

I once prayed for months with a woman who had endured sexual abuse throughout her life – people who have been victimized as children often suffer similar abuse in adulthood. This woman saw herself more as victim than survivor, and harmed herself as well. One time I said something about moving toward forgiveness. She turned on me in fury and said, “They told me in my support group that I don’t ever have to forgive!” I backed down, thinking, “That is true – but then will you ever be free?” Forgiveness cannot be rushed, but to close ourselves to it leaves us bound to people who have hurt us.

Years later I met another woman. She and her two sisters had been sexually abused throughout childhood by her father and grandfather, who were still alive and in the family. She had done the excruciating work of addressing those wounds and moving toward healing, and had come to forgive her abusers. She did not trust or get close to them, and worked to ensure the safety of children in the family system, but over time she released the awful burden of their crimes. And then she was no longer psychically connected to them – forgiveness meant freedom from them. Her sisters refused to do this work; one was deeply alcoholic and the other suicidal. As brutal as it is to work at healing from trauma, it is a movement toward freedom, and life.

Many of us have not experienced trauma this severe – but we might feel bound in some way by a hurt we have suffered or anger we continue to hold. Usually the anger is justified; it can still be corrosive over time. Today, we might let some of those stuck places come up in our mind, and pray about forgiving people who have hurt us, or ask forgiveness of those whom we have hurt. If we ask the Spirit to show us those things, they often emerge from the muck.

Inner healing is a powerful process of bringing the love of God to bear on our emotional wounds. I have witnessed tremendous transformation result from the healing of memories and specific areas of woundedness. (If you want to know more about this process, please contact me.)

As we release that healing stream of God’s love and power to soak into hidden wounds and resentments, life returns to parched places, and old knots become unwound so that peace can flood in. “It is for freedom that Christ has made us free,” Paul wrote. Jesus has won for us freedom to release ourselves and others. Let’s set the captives free.

9-5-17 - Exclusion?

We love to talk about how inclusive church should be. But In our gospel passage this week, Jesus suggests conditions for exclusion. He lays out a process for dealing with conflict in the community of faith, by which someone who has inflicted hurt might participate in repentance and reconciliation. He also provides a contingency for those occasions when the offending party is unable or unwilling to be reconciled: “If the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”

On the face of it, this approach seems realistic, if harsh. If trust has been breached in the community, and attempts at repair have failed, perhaps wholeness can only be gained by isolating the offender. No doubt this teaching gave rise to the practice of shunning and excommunication in some Christian groups. Separating an offender from the community at large can be an act of punishment or protection, or both. It is also an act of aggression, even if warranted, as in the case of an abusive spouse or parent whose presence in the community would make it impossible for the survivor to feel safe.

I wonder, though, if Jesus meant something else entirely. The way Jesus treated Gentiles and tax collectors was to eat with them and heal them, invite them to repent and to join his community. The people he seemed to have no desire to be in relationship with were the "holy men," the religious leaders. Is Jesus inviting us to go deeper into reconciliation than is comfortable? Is he suggesting we open ourselves to the Other who has hurt us, to see her wounds and distorted perceptions, reach across the divide with love that has the power to transform?

That is an intriguing read of this passage. As a strategy, it leaves room for growth, where distancing and isolating offenders does not. I knew a church in which a seeker was found to have been viewing internet pornography involving minors. He complied with law enforcement when discovered, entering willingly into the justice process and into therapy, hoping to find deliverance from this compulsive behavior. But people in the church were unwilling to have him around, except under very stringent guidelines – rules which ensured he could never become part of that otherwise loving community in which he might have found healing and transformation. I believe safety for all could have been ensured without this degree of exclusion – but we’ll never know. He did not stay long under these strictures, and neither he nor his wife continued their exploration of the Christian life. And some members of that church missed an opportunity to expand their capacity to love the sinner – and so to experience God’s love more fully.

Of course, each situation demands its own discernment. Reaching out must be accompanied by true honesty, within safe boundaries for those hurt. I think of the Truth Commissions set up in South Africa during the dismantling of apartheid. Reconciliation was forged not by burying grievances, but by bringing them into the light, speaking them in truth and clarity, with the perpetrators there to hear the effects of their actions and invited to repent. Healing for victims can happen without the repentance of perpetrators, but when you have both, there is ground for deeper engagement, deeper community.

Think of someone you have shut out of your life or community because of harm they have caused.
Can you imagine reconciliation on any level? If so, pray for a vision of how. If not, can you pray for that person to be healed and even blessed? When someone is blessed, she is much less able to hurt.

None of this is easy, nor simple. But I believe it is the Good News which we are called to live.

9-4-17 - Conflict

Conflict is a fact of life – or at least a fact of human nature. Wherever two or three are gathered, there are likely to be four or five competing desires (sometimes within one person.) We don’t all see things the same way; each has her own lens borne of her own history and circumstances and brain chemistry. We don’t all want or feel we need the same things; inevitably one person’s want gets in the way of some other good, as, say, a desire for untrammeled speed will compromise the safety of others.

Christian communities are not immune to conflict. In fact, they are often conflict incubators, since people come to them hoping for the idyllic family they never had, dragging along their thwarted, dysfunctional baggage. Conflict within a church family is a given. It’s what we do with it that makes the difference. As my friend Peter likes to say, “Conflict doesn’t kill churches. Suppressed conflict kills churches.”

Jesus knew that the community of his followers would include hurt and conflict – witness the infighting among his disciples while he was yet with them. So he laid out a process for dealing with it: “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church.”

Jesus’ teaching makes great psychological sense. First, we are to show the courage and respect to speak privately to the person who’s hurt us. Don’t triangulate conflicts by talking to a third person before sharing your feelings honestly with the first. How many conflicts could be quickly deflated by this simple step – and yet, many of us have been conditioned not to confront people, so we let it escalate.

If that conversation goes nowhere because the other person isn’t open to hearing how you feel, bring in that third or fourth person – but in the presence of the one who’s hurt you, not behind his back. Now it becomes a community issue, and out in the light. And if that doesn’t work, Jesus says to bring your grievance before the whole community. What happens when we do that? We model openness and vulnerability and transparency. We’ve invited prayer for ourselves and the person who has hurt us. We’ve offered our wound for healing, and opened ourselves to the transforming power of love. Can this get messy? Sure it can. But it’s not nearly as toxic as a conflict that is allowed to fester.

Can you think of a time when you were hurt by someone in your community of faith? Were you able to articulate it? Did you speak of it to others before you spoke to that person? Did you distance yourself from that person or the community? Have you forgiven?

If the memory is still painful, that's a sign that it remains unhealed – and that is something to invite the Holy Spirit into. It’s never too late to forgive and be set free, even if the person who hurt you is no longer in your life.

This teaching assumes relationship and intimacy within the Body of Christ. Many of our congregations are far from that. Maybe that’s where we start – by getting close enough that hurts can happen. And loving enough to forgive and heal.

9-1-17 - Checkin' It Twice

I lean toward the “grace and love” aspects of God as the Scriptures and Jesus describe God’s Realm. Give me eight “parables of the prodigal” for any one “be warned, judgment is coming” passage. Yet, as much as Jesus described God’s Kingdom as a place of unexpected mercy and reordered rankings, he did not shy away from the judgment to come. So he ends this teaching about taking up your cross with the reminder that there will be a reckoning:

“For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done."

That "repay everyone for what has been done” bit sounds ominous to me. I tend to assume, mostly for neurotic reasons, that the Judgment will go badly for me. Maybe you share that instinct; it is what I call “original shame.” It drives Santa Claus theology – “He’s makin’ a list, checkin’ it twice, gonna find out who’s naughty or nice…”

Only it’s not Santa who’s coming to town, but the Son of Man with his angels in the glory of his Father. Who of us can stand before such a entourage? Saint Paul didn’t think he could. 
“Wretched man that I am,” he wrote in Romans, “Who will deliver me from this body of death?”
And then he answered his own question: “Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!”

The great, audacious claim of Christian faith is that the One who comes to judge is the same One who has delivered us from the power of sin and shame. United with Christ, we need fear no reckoning. As Paul goes on to say, “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Wow.

No condemnation. And as we breathe that in, and allow this union with Christ to be realized in us, we find ourselves making God-ward choices, moving with the power and love of the Holy Spirit. And then we start to be able to see where Christ is in the world around us.

Our passage ends on a cryptic note. Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”
No one quite knows what that means – the next event in Matthew’s Gospel is the Transfiguration, where Peter, James and John see Jesus in his divine glory for a moment. Is that what he meant? Or did he mean the spiritual vision that allows us to see the Son of Man coming all the time?

How does that sentence, “He will repay everyone for what has been done” sit with you?
Do you assume blessing? Then you are already blessed.
Do you assume condemnation or trial? Then spend some time today with Paul’s promise of grace and love, let it work in.

And pray to be so filled with the Holy Spirit that you have the spiritual vision to see what the world does not: the Son of Man coming in his glorious reign, once upon a time, for all time - and right now.

8-31-17 - Life-Savers

“For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” (This Sunday's gospel reading is here.)

The first image that the word “Life-Saver” brings to my mind is that little round candy you suck on as it releases its flavor. It’s there until it’s gone. Of course, those candies were so named because they resemble life-savers, the large, inflated rings affixed to the sides of ships, meant to keep you buoyant should you find yourself in the water. Their saving utility is limited by the circumstances in which they are employed – they might save you from drowning in the short-term, but not from, say, sharks, storms or starvation. A more complete rescue is still needed.

On the face of it, Jesus’ remark that those who want to save their life will lose it, and vice versa, seems scrambled. When we set out to save our life, don’t we usually succeed? How could the very effort to do that guarantee defeat? It depends, I suppose, on what we call life.

If we consider “life” to be mere existence, Jesus’ words seem nonsensical. If we see life in a larger sense as the sum of our interactions in time and space, our bodies, minds and spirits, in relationship and in giftedness – then Jesus’ counter-intuitive words begin to harmonize. Putting our energy into preserving our existence might result in our losing flavor and shape, like those little candies. Oh, sure, we might be alive, but are we living? A fixation on life-preservation, on security, can deliver us from the waves, but not from the more serious spiritual adversities that challenge us. As Jesus went on to say, “For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?”

When Jesus asks us to “lose our life for his sake,” he invites us to let go of the things we cling to, what my friend Linda used to call our “self-saving strategies” that we think will save us or get us affirmation. Clinging to things that are passing away doesn’t make us very secure. If you're at risk of drowning, struggling to stay alive only imperils you further. Calming down is key to survival. When we invite Jesus to lead us into the Life He came to proclaim and demonstrate, we will find the Life he promises.

What do you grab onto when you feel threatened? Do you feel called to let go of something you’ve relied upon, that holds you back from giving yourself more fully to God? You might ask the Holy Spirit to show you what, and how.

Jesus kept circling back to this “dying to self” thing because he needs his followers free to be led by the Spirit. Our invitation is to stop trying to gain the whole world, and open ourselves to the One who made it. After all, in our churches we symbolically drown initiates at the beginning of their life in Christ. Ultimately, the life-saver we need is the One who walked on water and is always here to give us a hand up.

8-30-17 - Are We Following?

The culture most of us live in is not high on self-denial, unless it’s in the service of health or beauty. Once upon a time in America, self-sacrifice and sharing one’s resources for the common good were high values. These days generosity is often sporadic, a reaction to emergencies and based on our perception of whether we have enough to share. (I just made impulsive donations to organizations working with people and animals in flood-ravaged Houston.)

“Do we have enough?” stands in a stark contrast to Jesus’ core teachings – and one of his most hardcore teachings was this: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

Did Jesus mean “cross” in a general, “whatever-your-calling-from-God” way? Or did he mean a specific willingness to endure martyrdom? For him, the cross was a literal eventuality, but not for every follower. Since I hope never to be in a position of having to choose my faith in Jesus over my physical life, I look at this teaching more figuratively. Our “cross” might be anything that represents the way we are called to participate in the mission of God to make all things whole. It may or may not involve suffering; most often it will include inconvenience and even discomfort.

Maybe before we contend with the call to self-denial and taking up of crosses, we should look at the first part of Jesus’ sentence: “If any want to become my followers.” Why would anyone today who did not know about Jesus want to follow him? Where is he going that we want to be?

I have to ask myself, “Why am I a follower of Christ?” Partly, it’s habit and custom and a lifetime of choices. But why today? It’s because I believe he is Life and Truth as well as Way. Because following him gives meaning to what might otherwise appear a meandering path through life. Because I believe his power to heal is still real and still with us. And because he says he loves me. I don’t know what that means, fully, but I know I want to find out.

How do you answer that question? Why are you a follower of Christ? If you're not, do you want to be? However you answer those questions, you can talk to Jesus about it. If that feels impossible, talk to a person whose spiritual life you trust.

I believe that, when we decide that we want to be Christ’s followers, we’re more ready to lay down our privileges and prerogatives and take up our crosses. And, as we allow ourselves to be transformed in that relationship, we may also discover a stronger desire to introduce others to this way of Jesus, cross, self-denial and all.

8-29-17 - Safety Second

Teacher’s pet one minute, Satan’s mouthpiece the next?
And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling-block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” (Next Sunday's gospel passage is here.)

Peter may have thought, “What just happened? Look, Master, I left my family and business to follow you. I jumped out of a boat and walked on water for you. I see the truth about who you are. One minute I'm your Rock and the next I’m your stumbling block? How can you call me Satan? I don’t want anything bad to happen to you. Why are you being so harsh?”

How could Jesus be so harsh to such a devoted and beloved disciple and friend? For one thing, that’s how close a relationship he had with Peter – he didn’t have to be polite. And he really wanted his followers to find a new, more God-like way of thinking. “For my ways are not your ways, nor my thoughts your thoughts, says the Lord,” we hear from Isaiah, and from Jesus, “You do not have in mind the things of God but the things of men.” 

Maybe Jesus this speaks fiercely because that’s how crucial it is that Peter get this right. If Peter is the “rock” on which Jesus hopes to build his community of Kingdom believers, then Peter of all people has to understand. He has to stop thinking in the world’s terms and start thinking in Kingdom terms. And in Kingdom terms, safety does not come first – faithfulness does.

I am wired toward safety and security. That can get in the way of faithfulness to God’s call, impede discerning God’s invitations. There’s nothing wrong with safety – God does not ask us to take risks for the heck of it. Sometimes, though, God wants to work through us in circumstances that are less than safe - after all, much of our world is less than safe.

When we know it’s God’s call, we might step into some risk; that is a matter of discernment and testing the call with others. Many people who feel called to mission or relief work are drawn inevitably to places of conflict and violence and trauama. But they feel God calling them to go, to be a witness to love; they surround themselves with prayer; and they go. Usually they came back in one piece.

But not always. The mission to which Jesus was called was not compatible with staying out of harm. We can see from the nightly news, with religious persecution on the rise around the world, that such tests still come. Today in prayer we might ask the Spirit if she is inviting us to participate in her transforming work in some way that involves risk. Risk doesn’t have to mean bodily harm – it might mean risking relationships or financial security, or working with difficult people or in areas that aren’t so safe. Where are you being nudged to open yourself to God’s Spirit in ministry? How does that feel? Talk to Jesus about it.

In the end, our criterion need not be, “Will I be safe,” but “Is this God’s work that I’m being invited to participate in?” If it is, and we are, then we walk in faith, trusting in the God we cannot see, trusting in the future on which we have staked our lives. God’s thoughts… how can we go wrong with those?

8-28-17 - Foreboding

If Jesus were around in our day, saying the things attributed to him in next Sunday's gospel, would someone have gotten him a prescription for Wellbutrin? Suggested he take a little time off, see somebody for that paranoid streak?

From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.

Peter certainly thought ill of this dark turn: And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, "God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you."

When things seem to be on a roll – which they did for Jesus’ disciples – it’s hard to envision it all going wrong. Jesus is drawing huge crowds, performing amazing miracles, and Peter has just correctly ID’d him as the long-awaited Messiah. This is no time to talk of suffering and death, is it?

The hindsight of faith tells us that Jesus was not being neurotically morose – he was telling truth to the people to whom he was closest in this world, truth he was going to have to tell them more than once and finally live through before they actually perceived it. But those listening to him that day didn’t know that – how could they tell a mood swing from a prediction? How can we, when our news alerts and social media feeds serve up fresh horrors by the hour?

I don’t think we can. We are called to live in hopeful balance, no matter what the circumstances. That means using the benefit of hindsight, which invites us to trust in the God who brings Life out of death, while we look forward to the gifts of God coming to us from our future. The dire events Jesus predicted came to pass – as did the one about his resurrection. We live because of all those events. Can that perspective help us with the feelings of foreboding that world events and our own lives can generate?

Are you anxious today about painful things that might be ahead? Can you invite God into conversation about them, seeking holy perspective? Where do you see blessing?
Might you reflect on what happened through Jesus’ suffering and rehearse God’s faithfulness to you in your life thus far? Does that help?

When driving, I recognize the need to keep my eyes on the road ahead while frequently checking the rear view mirror. Somehow, that's the balance we are invited to live in faith.

8-25-17 - Don't Tell...

I do not like secrets. I don’t mind knowing them… that’s a rush, to know something everyone else does not. But for me that feeling is short-lived, quickly replaced by the desire that everyone be on the same page, everyone committed to the same level of transparency. In families and in communities, secrets are toxic.

And if it’s good news, I especially hate having to keep it in! Only the awareness that everyone should get to tell their own stories holds me back and keeps me mum. Unless it’s my own good news, and then I can “spill” with abandon.

So I wonder how Jesus’ disciples felt when, after Peter identified Jesus as the Messiah, Jesus followed up with this: "Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.” 
Was he concerned that the coming clash with religious authorities would develop too quickly if everyone began using that kind of language about him? Did he want people to work it out for themselves? Were there other reasons at which I cannot guess?

I wonder if they were able to keep quiet. How could they? If your whole community is yearning and waiting for the Anointed One of God who will deliver them from evil, not to mention poverty, degradation and a hated occupying empire, and you’ve discovered that person, you pretty much want everyone to know. It’s not only Good News, it’s news!

Most of us, on the other hand, have known this too well and for far too long to think of it as news, let alone particularly good. Few of us are oppressed by others; maybe by feelings or addictions, but we do not live in occupied lands. What is it that keeps us quiet, if we are? Do we keep our faith a secret from people around us? Or do we feel too unsure about our faith to go around discussing it openly?

I don’t think Jesus wants us to keep quiet about who he is. I believe he wants us to rediscover his love and feel the amazement that God would love us so much as to send his Son into the world to show us what that love looks like. This leads us back to familiar territory – relationship with God in Christ. If there is nothing all that new or all that good about our religious life, remember that we are invited into a relationship that delivers new gifts, new promises, new hopes every morning. That’s pretty amazing.

When we truly engage that relationship with Jesus in prayer, we find ourselves talking about it, as we talk about other relationships in our lives, as we say, “You know what my friend Susie is doing this summer? You know what my co-worker Joel was saying the other day?” How about, “You know what I sensed Jesus say to me this morning?”

If you’re connected, talk about it. If you feel disconnected, tell Jesus you’re open to a deeper connection with him. If you feel funny talking to him, go talk to someone whom you think knows him and hang out with that person. Sooner or later, the Good News will dawn for us – and then we can't keep it to ourselves.

8-24-17 - Keys to the Kingdom

I’ve always pictured an oversized key, like an honorary Key to the City. But I don’t think that’s what Jesus had in mind when he said to Simon Peter,
“I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” 

He has just called Peter the “rock on which I will build my church.” And now the keys to the Kingdom? Of course, we can only guess at what he meant. This is how theologians and biblical scholars make a living, after all. But we can get a hint of what he intended when we think about what keys do. They lock things, and they open them. They make them inaccessible and accessible.

The Kingdom of God is a reality that Jesus described through image and metaphor, and demonstrated through healing, teaching, and transformative actions that look to us like miracles. It is the realm of God, the reality of God, the Life of God as it unfolds in our own plane of reality. It is power and energy and boundless grace. To be given the “keys” to this reality is to be given power to unlock, release the energy of heaven – or to withhold it. Hence, “…whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.

We are the heirs of this gift, this promise, this frightening spiritual authority. We can keep the realm of God, with all its power and promise and peace, locked up simply by not talking about it, or not exercising the power we’ve been given. Or we can use these keys to open it to everyone who is thirsty for God. We can keep people bound by withholding forgiveness, and loosed by exercising grace. Jesus gave us these gifts not to be locked away in a safe deposit box, but to be spent, drawn down, exhausted… only so does the store get replenished.

In prayer today, you might imagine sitting with Jesus and having him hand you a set of keys. What do they look like? What do they open? Who has the keys to your heart?

There are some things that need to remain bound, I suppose. And so many more that need to be released, set free. I want us to be in the “loosing” business, one lock at a time. That's what the keys to the kingdom are for.

8-23-17 - God's Rock

At their first encounter, Jesus gave Simon, son of Jonah, a nickname: “Petros,” meaning “rock.” He may have been teasing him about hard-headedness. But here, when he is commending Peter for the spiritual insight he has just confessed, he uses his given name, “Simon bar Jonah,” perhaps underscoring the gravity of this moment.

And Jesus answered Peter, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.”

Jesus switches to the nickname, alluding to other qualities of rock: as a sure foundation. Jesus once told a story about a person who built a house on sand and another who built on rock; the house built on sand washed away, while the one on rock stood firm. Now he uses that image to describe a spiritual edifice, the community of those who call him Lord, that will endure in the face of all that Hell can throw its way.

Does it change our view of “The Church” to view it as a mystical community ordained by Jesus himself, meant to last for all time, not just our little communities struggling to sustain themselves?

How might it alter our critique of its failings when we remember that this community represents a threat to the forces of evil, and it is the object of spiritual opposition? Might that remind us to be more faithful in praying for the church itself, that it be protected and true to its mission to make the disrupting love of God known in the world?

How might it strengthen our commitment to mission to remember that we are meant to be a threat to the forces of evil – we should be stirring up trouble!

Calling Peter the rock on which the church will be built means, in part, that we stand on the foundation of those apostles, who walked and worked with Jesus in his earthly life and witnessed to his rising from death. That’s why we read the teachings and stories and letters they left behind, and give these more weight than later ideas.

Today I invite you to pray for the church in specific ways:
  • Pray for your own community of faith – pray for its ministry and its clarity about where it fits into the larger scheme of God’s mission.
  • Pray for the churches in your community, especially how they might work together more effectively.
  • Pray for the church in the world, where it is persecuted, and where it is lukewarm and complacent (the latter is a greater danger). Pray for those who face torture and pressure to renounce their faith.
  • And pray for transformation for Christians who perpetrate violence against other religions; there are many of those instances in our world too.

And pray for yourself as a part of the worldwide body of Christ. Don’t hold yourself apart, no matter how corrupt or irrelevant church may seem at times. If you do that, you withhold gifts that the church needs to be the agent of transformation and healing Jesus intends it to be.

8-22-17 - Spiritual Intelligence

Jesus asks his closest followers, “Who do you say that I am?” And Peter gets the gold star: Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” 

It would take more time and space than we have to unpack the layers of meanings and interpretations in these two titles that Peter uses. Messiah was, and is, a mystical figure anticipated by the Jewish people, one who will deliver them from oppression and persecution. One strand of prophetic writings held that the Messiah would be of King David's line, whose kingdom was never to end. Not all schools of thought equated the Messiah with a divine person, and many assumed the Messiah would be a military savior, not a spiritual one.

And what does “son of the living God” mean? It could refer to a divine person, which is how the Christian tradition understands the incarnate Jesus. It could mean a human anointed by God to carry forth his redemptive plan, as some early theologians held before that interpretation was judged as heresy (which simply means outside of orthodoxy). The phrase reveals God as “living,” not a dead idol but a living entity interacting with her creation. And the phrase clearly indicates Jesus as one specially chosen as God’s instrument.

Peter seems to have hit the nail on the head:
And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.”

Jesus suggests this awareness is not one that Peter arrived at through reason, but received through revelation. Maybe that should help us to be less concerned when we perceive that faith and reason clash. Reason is a God-given gift for us to use; it is also a human faculty and can only take us so far. It is our spiritual intelligence, if you will, that we are to cultivate – and we can’t do that by working harder or thinking harder. We do that by learning to receive the Holy Spirit, who brings all the gifts and understanding we need.

What does “Son of the Living God?” mean to you?
Is God alive for you? In what ways?
How would you assess your “spiritual intelligence quotient?”

If we want to expand our “spiritual intelligence,” we don’t need to study harder, though study is important for a full spiritual life. We will cultivate an attitude of praise to the Living God, inviting that God to fill us with his life through the presence of the Holy Spirit. Then we will more keenly perceive what God is up to around us. We will find our faith emboldened to believe in the power of God poured out in blessing. We will grow in peace and joy and love and all those gifts promised to Christ-followers.

And we will grow better at articulating the hope we have within us, what – or who – it is that we wait for with eager anticipation. We live now; in the fullness of time we will live in fullness.

8-21-17 - Identity Check

It’s a mid-course check-in. Jesus had collected a community of followers. He had healed hundreds, fed thousands, forgiven, blessed, released and taught. But did anyone know who he really was?

Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” (Next Sunday's gospel reading is here

Jesus used the title “Son of Man” to refer to himself. This mystery has given biblical scholars plenty to chew on through the millennia. It is a title that appears often in the Hebrew Bible, mostly in the book of the prophet Ezekiel, where it does not suggest divine identity. It might be a title of humility, as well as humanity. In effect he was asking his closest associates, “Who do people say that I am?”

Their answers reflected the recent or distant past. Jesus was regarded as a prophet in the mold of, or even as a personification of the great Elijah or Jeremiah or another. Some thought he had taken on the mantle of John the Baptist. Then Jesus probed a bit deeper. “Never mind what other people think – who do you say that I am, you who have lived with me and walked with me trained with me and prayed with me. Do you recognize the fullness of who I am?”

Peter gives an answer that pleases Jesus, which we'll explore tomorrow. Today let’s take the question as directed at us: Who do you say that Jesus is? A role model? A great teacher? A healer? Savior? Prophet? God incarnate? Try to separate your answer from what you’ve been taught all your life.

We could go deeper, ask the question another way:
How have you experienced Jesus? Who is he to you?

If he’s just a character in a book, a figure from a painting or stained glass window with a bubble around his head, I invite you to explore his “living-ness.” It’s a big claim we make as Christians, that our Lord who died over 2000 years ago rose again and is accessible to us through His Spirit. We can know him in prayer and in action and in worship and in sacraments. How do you know him? How would you like to?

Talk to him. Who does he say he is when you ask him?

8-18-17 - A Turn of Mind?

One word I learned in my first year of divinity school was “Immutable.” This is a characteristic of God in the traditional Christian understanding of who God is. It means “unchangeable” or “cannot be acted upon.” It is puzzling, because there are stories in both Old and New Testaments in which God seems to be swayed from an announced course of action by some human input. (A prime example is Abraham’s dickering with God over the fate of Sodom.)

In this week’s story about the Canaanite woman who implored Jesus to heal her daughter, Jesus seems change his mind. Let’s review the conversation: She asks for healing for her daughter. Jesus replies dismissively, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She reminds him that, “even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.’ Then Jesus answered her, ‘Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.’ And her daughter was healed instantly.”

The notion that Jesus – God – could change his mind is troublesome for those on the “predestination/everything-is-preordained” end of the theological spectrum. From this view, Jesus must have planned all along to accede to the woman’s pleas, and was somehow testing his followers or setting up a miracle. That scenario does not work for me. Not only does it clash with the story as both Matthew and Mark present it, it makes Jesus look manipulative and cruel in addition to rude and uncaring. That does not square with the way he is portrayed in most Gospel scenes.

I go for the plainer sense of the words as we have them. They appear to show Jesus making a transition. While we cannot know why he at first rebuffed this woman, he is clearly moved by her persistence and faith and pronounces the healing of her daughter. Perhaps he recalled his own teaching that even a mustard seed of true faith Is sufficient to move mountains. Perhaps he was moved by her calling him “Lord.” Perhaps he truly looked at her for the first time. We don’t know. We only know he arrived at a different place than where he started.

This should not surprise us. Exercising free will is intrinsic to what it means to be a human being made in the image of God. That, according to our Genesis story, is what got us into trouble in the first place. And it is our also our will which allows us to accept God’s grace and forgiveness. If it is both human and divine to exercise free will, then we can rejoice that Jesus displayed this quality. It gives us yet another point for connecting with him, and enlivens our relationship as we interact with him in prayer through the Holy Spirit.

Though it is comforting to know that Jesus was capable of a turn of mind, I dare say it is more often our minds that will be changed as we seek God’s wisdom. We are invited to share the mind of Christ. (“Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus.” – Phil 2:5), to allow our wills to be united with the will of God.

Are there issues in your life in which you feel you and Jesus want different things? Have you brought that up in prayer? Are you willing to be shown God’s view on that matter? Can you tell God yours? That’s a rich prayer conversation.

If we leave this story with nothing else, I hope it has given us a renewed awareness of how lively our relationship with God in Christ can be. It’s not a stiff, stale historical drama – it’s up-to-the-minute eyewitness news. So let’s keep our eyes open, and our minds as well, and bear witness to the healing love of God, which is never too late.

8-17-17 - Even the Dogs

Is there a greater example of humility in our scriptures than this unnamed woman, persistently asking Jesus to heal her daughter? In the face of his rejection, his insinuation that giving her the gifts of the kingdom of God would be like throwing food to dogs, she does not flinch, she does not protest, she does not argue. She simply comes back with a statement that shows she is not about to put her pride before getting what she needs from Jesus:

But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”

What faith, what humility. “If you’re going to compare me to dogs, fine – let me tell you about dogs. They eat too, maybe on crumbs and scraps, but they get fed on what falls from the table. Surely your power is so great that even a crumb of it can heal my poor little girl?” Clearly Jesus was moved, for with this comment she finally got his attention.
Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.”

In her gentle refusal to be thwarted, this woman models faith for us. Do we ever think Jesus isn’t paying attention to our prayers? Do we turn away – sometimes walk away for years – because we don’t sense a response? Do we conclude that “God must not really care about me," when we don’t perceive an answer?

This mother held nothing back. She was willing to beg, to cross religious and ethnic lines, to compare herself to a dog cadging crumbs under a table, to get the help her daughter needed. And how did she know Jesus had the power to help? Without knowing him, she believed whole-heartedly in what was said of him – that he was the Holy One, the Messiah, the Son of David. She knew no one else could help. She gave it her all, not only her best shot, but every shot she had.

Let’s not respond to this story by thinking, “Oh, I didn’t beg enough, I didn’t pray hard enough.” We don’t always get what we pray for; there is still mystery. Even so, we can approach Jesus the way she did, no holds barred, arguing our case until we are satisfied we have been heard, or have received the grace to release it into God’s will. We can go back and forth with Jesus in prayer, not walk away empty-handed and disheartened. As Wayne Gretzky famously said, "You miss 100% of the shots you never take."

What do you want Jesus to do for you? Don’t dredge up all the things you’ve wanted before; what do you want now? Tell him – in as personal way as you can. Either imagine talking with him, or speak aloud in a private space, or write him – but listen to what he says. Talk back if you need to. Jesus never gave us a “no talk-back” rule.

It is a delicate balance – to pray boldly, because we know God is generous and powerful beyond our imagining, and yet to pray humbly, without feeling entitled. Let’s try to match the Canaanite woman in both the passion of her asking and the depth of her humility before God.

Maybe we should think of ourselves as many dogs we know – loved and pampered, and willing to feast under the table as well as at it.

8-16-17 - Bad Mood Jesus

A read through the Gospels makes it plain that Jesus held the full range of human emotions; he was not above sorrow or sarcasm, anguish or anger. In the event we explore this week, though, he appears rude, even mean. His dismissive response to this woman and her plea is unlike any other recorded encounter. Where usually he went out of his way to connect with the needy, lepers, blind people, tax collectors and prostitutes, here he seems to push someone away.

Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”

Is this Jesus “staying on mission,” as we might say nowadays, wary of getting off schedule again? Was he having a mood swing? Why would he define his boundaries so narrowly here, when he engaged with and offered healing to Gentiles elsewhere? When the woman presses the issue, he gets even more tactless:  
But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

Whoa. This goes beyond, “I’m tired, I’m busy, leave me alone.” Jesus seems to say that this women and her demon-enslaved daughter are unworthy of his Father’s love, power, healing. I have often noted that the promise written into our Baptismal Covenant in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer – “Will you respect the dignity of every human being?” - is not explicitly biblical. But it is consonant with the overall arc of God’s redemptive action, declaring the likes of you and me, the poor, unclean, and lame, the successful as well as the most broken worthy of extravagant, sacrificial love. Why not this poor mother, so desperate and full of faith?

Is Jesus frustrated at the lack of response to his ministry among so many of his own people, who don’t seem to receive the power this outsider recognizes and craves? Whatever his motivation, the resulting words and attitude seem to clash with the Jesus we see at work elsewhere.

I don’t think we can explain it. We just need to sit with it, to receive it as part of the record. This odd and troubling vignette invites us to expand our picture of Jesus, let it become more rounded, more layered and shaded, more flesh and blood. It is oddly comforting to know that Jesus shared our humanity so fully that he too could be stressed and snappish (yet, without sin!).

Perhaps today we might sit quietly in prayer for a time, reflecting on the last time we said or did something unkind or inconsiderate, found ourselves acting out of a bad mood instead of our best self. Might we call that moment up in our mind, and rather than beating ourselves up for it, invite Jesus to sit with us in it? Might we draw near to him in that “bad mood moment,” if that’s what it was, and so make space for him to draw near to us in ours?

The rest of the story makes it clear that the seeming put-down was not the last word, that the fullness of Jesus included an ability to let another person in and adjust his settings according to new input. And at every moment, God loved him – and so it is for us. As we accept that love, I think we’ll find our “snappish” moments become fewer and our moments of regarding the Other with love increase.

8-15-17 - Pushy Women

She had no business bothering Jesus. She was a Gentile, and a woman. She was loud – and pushy:
Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.”

As Mark tells this story, the woman is Syro- Phoenician, from the nearby coastal region called Phoenicia, part of the province of Syria. But Matthew, writing later, uses an archaic term, “Canaanite.” There was no Canaan in Jesus’ time, and hadn’t been for centuries. Canaan was the name of the Promised Land that God promised the Israelites, the Promised Land Moses led them toward and Joshua led them into - amid much slaughter of local populations and suppression of local religions and customs, as our Hebrew Bible tells the tale. Some Canaanites may have gone north into Phoenicia when the Hebrews came into their territory. This is the history Matthew stirs up, linking this woman with those long-ago enemies of Israel. She has no status with the Jews, no connection. So what is she doing calling Jesus by the Messianic title, “Son of David,” and asking for his help?

She is one of the outliers we find in the Gospels who name Jesus’ true identity as the Messiah while the people around him don’t seem to get it. This unnamed mother stands with the Roman centurion and blind Bartimaeus and the Samaritan woman at the well. She gets who Jesus is, and knows he can help her little girl.

But Jesus does not seem to “get” her. He dismisses her brusquely, refusing to hear her request (more on that tomorrow...). Though in this story he is the foreigner – he is in her territory – he notes the ethnic and religious difference and seems disinclined to cross that line. Given that he has just declared that we should be judged by what comes from within us, not the external, he seems quick to categorize her and her daughter as “not his problem.”

We live in a world full of children who are not our problem – unless we open our eyes and claim them. Anti-immigration protesters, even some wearing crosses, carry signs saying, “Not our children. Not our problem.” Some people condemn “those Muslim terrorists” or “that bully Israel” or “those dangerous refugees,” as though they are then free to wipe their hands of the world’s problems. Some say, “We have hunger right here. We should feed our own.”

But some go out to where the Other lives and bring food, education, medical care and friendship. My friend Tom Furrer, an Episcopal priest in Connecticut, is back from his 18th medical mission in northern Nigeria, where his parish and other partners have built clinics. Each year for two weeks they see thousands of patients, including many Muslims in a region where Christian-Muslim violence is horrific (this is the area where Boko Haran operates.) Tom has written that one of their goals is to show love and respect to Muslims “and so to demonstrate an alternative narrative to the one of the terrorists now plaguing this country.” More than one Muslim treated at the FaithCare mission said, “I had heard that Christians hate us. Now I see that is not true.”

Who is calling your name from the margins, asking for help? Maybe someone you don’t want to see? What if you engage?

This outlier woman had something to give Jesus – and eventually he became open to what she offered. The most amazing things can happen when we turn and see what it is those loud, pushy people want.

8-14-17 - Inside Out

This coming Sunday’s gospel reading has two sections. Most of this week’s Water Daily will focus on the second section. But today let’s look at the first part. It appears to be a technical discussion of religious law, but in it we see Jesus radically reinterpret the religious understanding of his people, and dismiss the leadership of the teachers and leaders. No wonder they wanted him gone.

It begins with a seemingly harmless statement: T
hen he called the crowd to him and said to them, “Listen and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.” What’s the trouble with that?

Well, his disciples tell him, the Pharisees, chief upholders of the Law, took offense at that, presumably because it undermined rules about food and ritual cleansing. Jesus responded by further insulting them: He answered, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted. Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind. And if one blind person guides another, both will fall into a pit.”

Now he’s in deep – not only are these leaders not authorized by God, he says they are the blind leading the blind. When the disciples ask for further clarification, Jesus explains that the impurity that should concern us is not whether our food is kosher or our hands ritually clean. Rather, he says, the negative and destructive thoughts, words and actions that come from inside our hearts defile us. He is not dispensing with the Law of Moses, but he is reinterpreting it and, if you will, spiritualizing it.

This is key to his message of Good News, that the realm of God is not about rules and rituals, but is an invitation to dwell in the reality of God, in relationship with our heavenly Father. The human heart is a complicated place – capable of great love and generosity and grace, and also the source of such pain and petty, mean-spirited behavior toward ourselves and others. It’s our hearts that matter in the long run, more than bodies or behavior – and if we align our hearts with God, our behavior and bodies will reflect that alignment at our core. The movement is inside out, not outside in.

What does this ancient debate have to do with us? Perhaps it’s not so ancient, as our ongoing “morality wars” remind us. It is human nature to privilege rules and rituals that make us feel ordered, when what God asks is a reformed heart and a renewed spirit.

This passage tells me to look at my own heart to discern my motivations before I adopt “behavior modification” techniques to help me better regulate my life. It invites me to connect with God early in the day so that what I do flows out of that renewed relationship. It reminds me to notice when I seek external “fixes” instead of internal renewal.

This teaching also reminds us as a society to treat the whole person with honor and dignity, even if he or she is a “problem,” rather than treating symptoms and trying to impose regulation from without. Then each one can function out of their wholeness and we get a more whole community.

It’s not what we eat that’ll hurt us – it’s the distaste we harbor for our neighbor and the disrespect with which we sometimes treat ourselves. And Jesus can help us with that.

8-11-17 - Sink or Swim

Peter got out of the boat. He took a few steps, actually walking on water. He was doing fine, focused on Jesus… until he felt the wind and remembered he couldn’t actually do this. Then he started to sink.

So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came towards Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”

“Why did you doubt?” I told a story yesterday about an indigenous community that took Jesus’ stories at face value and did what he did in the gospels, not considering it miraculous. I don't know if that story is true. But I do remember reading in one of Madeleine L’Engle’s autobiographies that, as a small child at her family’s country place, she made a game of going down the stairs without touching them. She clearly remembered doing that, and she did it until she learned that was impossible.

What makes us doubt, aside from “knowledge,” is the strong winds. It’s adversity, and the times we’ve been wrong before, and the voices of people who say you’re crazy to believe you can do this or say that, that it’s nuts to be a person of faith. This does not mean that we should do everything we think of – but we should respond to the Spirit’s promptings. Peter stepped out onto the water at Jesus’ command, and because Jesus was out there waiting for him. 

The risks I suggest we consider are ones we take as steps of faith, in relationship with the One who has told us all things are possible. That One is also at hand to save us when we start to sink. Most activities of faith involve some stepping out and some sinking… at those times, like Peter, we cry out for Jesus’ hand, and it is there. The crying out and trusting that God will be with us are also acts of faith. Our whole faith life “out of the boat” is one we live in relationship to God, not as solo operators.

Name a time in your life when you really stepped out, felt called to something, and went forward, not sure if you would be supported. Did you ever falter? What was it that caused you to doubt? Did you start to sink? What was your response? What was the activity of God in you at that time? We need those memories to strengthen us for action now.

What faith activity do you feel called to walk out into at this time in your life? What would you need to feel or know in order to take that first step onto the water? Do you need a stronger sense that Jesus is with you, waiting for you, ready to help you if you falter? That's a good prayer for today...

The message our culture gives is often, “You’re on your own, sink or swim.” Jesus’ message is, “Sink or walk… I will be with you, even if you feel yourself sinking.” Whatever risks of faith we feel called to take, we can step out, keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, even as the winds and the waves try to claim our attention. One step after another, fixed on his power and love, and we can cross oceans.